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By Msgr. Charles Pope • July 31, 2018
One of the more common misunderstandings of the modern age—we might even call it a delusion— is confusing explanation with meaning. Using the scientific method and other empirical techniques, we have been able to explain many of the processes and mechanics of the natural world.
To give explanation, however, is not the same as to ascribe meaning. To answer how things work is not the same as to answer why they do. Showing, for example, the wonderful symbiotic relationships involved in photosynthesis and describing how it works at the molecular level does not explain why there is such a thing as photosynthesis.
To take it further, why do things exist at all? Why is there observable order in the universe rather than chaos? Explanation is not the same as meaning; how is not the same as why.
The Delusion – In modern times, perhaps as a prideful result of being able to explain so much, we often think we have wholly accounted for not just how things work, but whythey do. We have not. Many today like to argue that the material or physical sciences have presented a comprehensive explanation for most things. They have not. By definition, the physical sciences only address physical interrelationships and secondary causes of things.
Put in philosophical terms, the physical sciences deal well with material and efficient causality but are not well equipped or able to answer questions of formal or final causality. Further, the material sciences can address some secondary causality but not primary causality. (Additional information on these topics is available here and here.)
The error of our day, that the physical sciences can provide a comprehensive explanation for nearly everything, is often referred to as scientism. As Bishop Robert Barron and others have rightly pointed out, there is a metaphysical assumption at the basis of all the physical sciences: that reality is intelligible. It is a necessary presumption for the scientific method that things are not mindlessly or haphazardly here.
Science must base itself on intelligibility but cannot answer why there is intelligibility, why there is meaning or purpose at all. It is self-evident that humans think, that we can extract meaning, and that things are intelligible. But why do we have this capacity? Why do rocks, trees, and likely most animals, not have this ability?
Brain chemistry can tell us some of how we have this capacity (though consciousness and the sense of self remain mysterious) but not why.
To explain is not the same as to understand. One of the great tragedies in this unreflective age is that too many people do not realize this. In our focus on intellectual acumen, impressive though it is, many are dismissive of the sense of wonder and awe that engages our humility at the moral level and our faith at the spiritual level.
Man is naturally spiritual, leading us to ask, Why? Despite the relatively recent surge of atheism in the West, faith has been widespread throughout human history and still is today across most cultures. No matter how much we think we have explained, deep down we still have that nagging question, Why? Even the secularists and atheists of the modern age cannot wholly avoid this question, for explanation is not the same as meaning. They may defer it, try to ignore it, or deny its relevance, but one day they will have to confront it.
There is a remarkable story told about a dying soldier in the trenches of World War I. As the 18-year-old lay dying, the chaplain comforted him. In his delirium, the soldier asked, “Why?” The chaplain thought the young man was struggling with why he was dying after such a brief life, so he asked, “Do you mean, ‘Why am I dying?’” The soldier answered with something far more profound: “No, why did I live? What was I here for?”
Why is about meaning and is not a question that science can answer. It is not a question that seems to come from our body or brain but from our soul. There is no evidence that plants or animals ponder meaning or seek to understand. They don’t ask why or agonize over nonexistence as they are dying. These are uniquely human questions: Why? What is the meaning? To explain is not the same as to understand.
No matter how materialistic, secular, or atheistic our culture becomes; no matter how widespread the error of scientism; it is a question that is not going away: Why?
We who are of faith have answers given to us, for faith is a way of knowing based on God’s revelation. Granted, we don’t always fully understand God’s answers and they do contain mysterious elements, but the answer to why things exist rather than not or why we are here rather than not, is simply this: God is, and God is love.
We of the house of faith must gently but clearly continue to raise the fundamental question, why? to an unbelieving age and respectfully insist that it be addressed. There are many ways to do so:
Why is there existence?
Why (not how) do you exist?
Why are you angered when I mention God? You are not angry when I mention a duck-billed platypus or the possibility of ancient space visitors to this planet who sowed the seeds of life, but my mention of God seems to evoke a strong response in you.
If your anger is rooted in a sense of injustice (i.e., that what I say or believe is “wrong”), why? In other words, why do we human beings have a sense of justice, of right and wrong? Where does it come from and on what is it based?
If you believe that everything is caused by random mutation and behavior is biologically determined, then is there any basis for morality at all?
If you claim that believing in God is “wrong” and atheism is “right,” on what do you base this?
If you point to the “evil things” that believers have done in the past (e.g., the Inquisition), where does your sense of injustice come from? Why are you angry with believers if behavior is determined by chemicals in the brains?
If behavior, thought, and decision are biologically determined, why is anything wrong at all?
In a word, Why?
During debates, some will seek refuge in terms like pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus, but these are focused on the how not the why. Why does the brain do what it does? Why does the brain have what it has? Why is the brain there in the first place?